Introduction: Education & Inequality

Over the last two months, I had written on two areas – Work and Politics.  Saying Goodbye to 9 to 5 was on the changing world of work and the Politics of Big Tent was on the need to embrace diversity in politics. Look at http://palan.org/archives/427 for the articles. As a Social Entrepreneur, I am always intrigued by the quality of education, and the current post on education has been triggered by two events: first, the conferment of Malaysia’s highest civilian honour ‘Tun’ on Arshad Ayub, the Malaysian education icon who has done substantial work to promote social mobility in the country, and second, the fascinating work of Stanford Professor Raj Chetty, who leads  the Equality of Opportunity Project, which is one of the most important research effort in economics today, according to David Leonhardt.

Dr Raj Chetty

Although I had heard of Raj Chetty a few years back when he became one of America’s youngest tenured professors at the age of 28 in Harvard, I immersed myself in following his work only recently. While he belongs to the Nagrathar clan like me, I can lay no claim to being anywhere close to the genius of his analytical mind or the quality of work on Education and Inequality, he has done over the years. But I do tell my wife that I must be related to him in some way ☺. Obviously, we are all human in trying to find some proximity to geniuses.

Selective Attention

My classmate Abdul Karim recently wrote about the role of bias and selective attention. I could not agree more with him after reading Raj Chetty. College education is a great equaliser in theory, but in reality, it is a great divider and segregator. Little attention is paid to the correlation between Education and Inequality. Chetty’s work on Lost Einsteins  is an important piece of work on innovation and inequality.

Lost Einsteins

Einstein’s work as a renowned scientist needs no explanation. His intellectual achievements, originality and publications have made the word Einstein synonymous with genius. Humans have progressed because of innovation. Breakthrough ideas and scientific advances improve the quality of life. Intel chips, iPhones, and miracle treatments using penicillin, vaccines and antibodies have changed our lives. Lost Einsteins focus on the theme of Education and Inequality and places the argument that we might be losing much innovation due to economic and social disparity. “Lost Einsteins” refer to the women, minorities, and children from low-income families who missed the possibility of ever becoming inventors because they had no opportunity to be exposed to a culture of innovation.

The Research

The argument on how colleges act to both interrupt and support inequality made disturbing reading. From Chetty’s research, we can seriously understand relative intergenerational mobility and the impact of quality education on social mobility. The influence of good kindergarten classrooms and good teachers; the role of location; the gender gaps in opportunity; and disparities in life expectancy are all highlighted with datasets in their work. Each nation has a responsibility to ensure that it does not deny its people the opportunity to become scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs. Denying opportunities and not enabling social mobility have serious consequences for society as a whole.

Malaysian Relevance

Obviously, Chetty’s work is American centric,  but it is indeed relevant to all of us. His research has had access to millions of anonymous tax records that have been analysed for several years. Similarly, Tun Arshad Ayub’s work in Malaysia combined with the efforts of others focusing on higher education and early childhood education has undoubtedly helped significant parts of the population. I can personally recount some of my experiences on how access to quality education has uplifted individuals and eventually, their families.

Importance of the Equality of Opportunity project

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to meet the late Dato’ Haji Thasleem Mohamed Ibrahim, a non-governmental advocate. He had approached me for admission and scholarships for two poor students into the medical school. His work was painstaking and very conscientious, but without structural changes he could only assist pockets of students rather than drive mass change. We were indeed proud when the two students graduated, and they lifted themselves and their families out of poverty.  Yet, in the absence of research data, it would be naïve to assume such isolated efforts promoting social mobility happen across the board. This is what makes the Equality of Opportunity project so very important in today’s context. The focus on Education and Inequality is clear.

Mobility

Raj Chetty’s work points out that moving from a childhood in poverty to an adulthood in affluence is a lot more difficult in the USA than in Canada. The overwhelming data that inequality is inherited is proven by the strong relationship between the incomes of parents and the incomes their children have as adults. Additionally, where one lives as a child matters for mobility. The opportunity one has  to go to college depends on family income. Chetty’s study shows that a majority of inventors, largely identified by the number of patents they had registered, come from rich families. The study also highlights that the life expectancy of the poor is short by at least a decade. The data is grim and needs urgent action.

Addressing Inequality

How do we address inequality? The easy answer is to stop the huge tax breaks on the rich and reinvest the money in reducing educational inequities. The tough question is whether the rich will then lose the incentive to create wealth and move their capital to other countries. I guess the answer is in a balanced approach. It is worth trying initiatives that provide social networks and connect role models with aspirants, such as the Malaysian accelerator hub MaGIC  (Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre). Universities, foundations and businesses have a great opportunity to cultivate lost Einsteins.

I was perplexed to see the news that  Malaysia’s Rural Development Deputy Minister Mohamad Abdul Rahman has reportedly proposed the creation of elite kindergartens. Apparently, these schools will have a better curriculum for children whose parents have the financial ability to pay. This is unfortunate, given all the structural inhibitors already present now. In contrast, events such as the Malaysian National Science Fair organised by Dr. Mohamed Yunus Mohamed Yasin are singular events that need to be emulated. Affirmative action policies will be needed to address the huge imbalances arising from historical discriminatory practices even though there may be a need to balance them in today’s context. You are not going to have scores of lower caste students in India or the natives of many countries emerge and climb the ladder of affluence unless there are policies to make it happen.

The message

The message is clear from the work of Dr Raj Chetty and colleagues.

Inequality looks likely to continue to grow.  Very high structural barriers to social mobility are built within the system. The good news is that these are not insurmountable. All we need is the sustained application of progressive policies.

We have to ensure we do not lose more Einsteins.